What do we really want out of a show about magic, or time travel, or a dystopian future, or the apocalypse? We want to see ordinary humans thrust into unlikely scenarios, pitted against themselves and the forces of nature to overcome bizarre and downright terrifying obstacles, like Neo dodging bullets or Katniss volunteering as tribute. We also want to imagine ourselves in their places, to test our own strengths and weaknesses. (We all know whether we’re the kind of people who’d curl up and rock uselessly back and forth during a zombie takeover, right?)
Most important, we want to learn about and investigate the rules and rhythms of societies that exist outside our own. J.K. Rowling sucked us in and kept us loyal because the structure of Hogwarts took our own educational experiences and made them, both literally and figuratively, magical. We could watch the characters progress through a more exhilarating version of our own childhoods, and learn the ins and outs of the fantasy world alongside Harry. In other words, we crave the bildungsroman with a twist.
The Magicians isn’t quite there, but episode by episode, it’s getting a little bit closer. In the interest of powering through the banalities of such things as character development, the two-part premiere rushed headlong into dramatic story arcs (you know things are moving too quickly when the writers need to throw a deus ex machina into the second episode) and over-the-top visual personality indicators (Penny wears ripped clothes — he must be a bad boy! Alice wears glasses — she must be smart!) for every character. But in “Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting,” there’s a little more time for tensions to simmer. Alas, Quentin is still a monstrous whiner.
The first cue that this show is getting its crap together is that we finally, after 85 minutes of dedication, get a magic montage. It’s the equivalent of Sorting Hat Day at Brakebills, and all the students are being tested for their Disciplines — it’s like discovering which major you should choose based on your innate ability to talk to plants or read minds. Alice and Penny are quick work: phosphouromancy and mind reading, respectively. But Quentin — and heeeere comes the montage — is put through a sad ringer of testing, only to have heads shaken at him when he can’t intuit the inner needs of a bonsai tree or catch otherworldly glimpses through magical glasses. Quentin, it seems, is an Undetermined — just another notch in his belt of sadness.
Purely based on dorm logistics, he’s told to bunk up at the Physical Kids house, along with Alice, which means easy access for … more conversations about Alice’s dead brother, Charlie, which is just the aphrodisiac Quentin needs to sadly plod along with another of her schemes. This time, she wants to figure out exactly where Charlie is if he’s not coming out of the mirror. Luckily, Quentin just read a spell that helps you find spirits of the dead (isn’t that convenient), so he and Alice do the logical thing: They walk around campus holding an unlit match that will suddenly light up. They trace Charlie’s spirit to a fountain that’s apparently “enchanted as shit,” yet again they manage to provoke something that is so piss-y it actually gives them the finger as they walk away. Later that day, after two dudes are sucked in and nearly killed by the spirit they awakened, this entire exercise starts to feel like a Ben Stiller movie that makes you desperately scream at the screen for Stiller to just own his behavior and stop trying to be sneaky, for crying out loud. You just lit a chuppah on fire, Ben, it’s time to just admit you smoke!
After she’s convinced to ask Margo for help, Margo and Alice are off to the city to find Emily Greenstreet, the girl who left Brakebills and went “full Muggle” right after Charlie died. After trying to make herself prettier to please a professor she was in love with (we feel ya, sister), Emily’s spell went horribly awry. Charlie tried to fix her resultant goopy cheek and melting eye, but was in over his head. Just like Dean Fogg warned at the beginning of this episode, the magic overtook him and turned him into a niffin, a supercharged dose of magic in the shape of a human body. It’s interesting and all, but can’t we hear more about that student-professor love affair?
Meanwhile, Hardy Boys Quentin and Eliot are off to solve a mystery. One volume of a pair of books has gone missing, possibly in the middle of one of the Physical Kids’ totally rad ragers, dude, where they drink their signature cocktails while the camera dutifully pans the scene and people are so, so drunk, OMG. Quentin and Eliot must find the volume’s mate (literally, its mate, as we’ll see momentarily) or else the school will investigate these wild parties where 23-year-olds imbibe adult beverages. With such dire consequences, the boys must act! The Mystery of the Titillated Tome is on!
Over at the Hedge Witch Bodega, Julia is quickly leveling up, stealing Benjamins from ATMs with a nerdy flick of the wrist and levitating stacks of quarters without so much as a leviosa. And here it must be said that Julia’s story line — perhaps due to the absence of those ’90s-throwback “party scenes” that arise at Brakebills every ten minutes in which pairs of cocktail-holding friends giggle and act like they’re on the set of MTV’s Spring Break — is far more interesting than Quentin’s.
The Magicians could use a serious crash course in Hogwartsian environment-building. The problem with Brakebills is that it could be anywhere; the show’s creators seem so determined to make it look like a College Scene that they’ve stripped it of the intimate nerdiness we associate with the very best of school-based lit. There’s none of the otherworldliness of Harry Potter, or the cliquishness of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History — or the highly intellectual, sex-drenched, Anglophilic world of Lev Grossman’s original novels, off which the series is based. Julia’s world is fully fleshed out. You understand how one advances, what the stakes are if one fails, what the rhetoric sounds like. Brakebills, on the other hand, feels like the feeble tour you might get at a C-list university. Maybe it’s all meant to be some sort of commentary on the dullness of grad school, but if so, I’m not in on the joke.
Luckily, Quentin and Julia reunite toward the end of this episode (unlike him and Alice, these two at least have some chemistry). The book that Quentin and Eliot are hunting for is (surprise!) is at the Hedge Witch Bodega. The Brakebills Hardy Boys lie their way in and then proceed to drive home the exact reason most of America hates Ivy Leaguers: Nothing but snobbish tropes pour out of their mouths.
The two sweep out with their book and its reunited mate — which, if nothing else, gives us a scene in which two leather-bound books hump like the wild beasts that you’d see on a late-night Discovery Channel show, and for that I will be eternally grateful — until Julia points out that, helloooo, it was a little rude of her best friend to show up at her bodega school and not even offer a “What’s up?” She then proceeds to make the point that the showrunners should be asking themselves when she implores Quentin: “Do you love magic? Is it in your soul? Is it like the secret heart of what you always were?” Do any of the Brakebills kids (okay, adults) even like magic? Because for a show called The Magicians, this seems to be a show about some grad-school students who can occasionally make their hands invisible. They’re mostly just running around, accidentally killing people with screwed-up spells, and then acting oddly at ease with it.
Even Alice, who’s considered the class genius, seems to have a strong vein of stupid running through her when she convinces Quentin to yet again try to lure out her niffin brother. She does actually make it happen, and it’s surprisingly gratifying: To her soft crooning of Simple Minds’ super-classic “Don’t You Forget About Me?” Charlie appears, smoking and perched in a Rodin-sculpture position.
But luring a spirit back from the other side and then letting it go on a rampage is only an accident the first time. The second time around, it’s clear that Alice is just plain negligent. So it’s hard to feel any pity for her when Quentin sucks her brother into a special little wooden box to prevent Charlie from killing her.
Really, it’s hard to feel pity for any of them. Or admiration. Or even interest. Until we’re a little more invested in the world of magic — and until these characters step out from behind their cardboard cutouts — this recapper is gonna be watching lots of Half-Blood Prince to fill the magic void in her life.